The “Matilda for grown-ups” comparisons are true: this Australian premiere burrows all the way down into the depths of despair and climbs triumphantly back out again, all within two snappy acts.
As per the classic 1993 film starring Bill Murray, Groundhog Day takes place on a very big day in a very small Pennsylvanian town. Each year on February 2, a large rodent emerges from his burrow to predict when winter will end. The Olivier Award-winning and Tony Award-nominated Andy Karl stars as Phil Connors, the jaded weatherman who gets sucked into a time loop covering the perky celebration over and over (and over) again.
A musical adaptation of a film about becoming a better person runs the risk of feeling twee. However, Tim Minchin’s zingingly clever lyrics and Danny Rubin’s gutsy book take the essence of the film and wring out considerably more depth and grit to give the musical its own more mature personality.
What would you really do if you were trapped repeating the same average-at-best day forever? Groundhog Day takes this premise and stretches it to all its thorny extremes, and isn’t afraid to get dark as hell in the process.
This is a musical that fully embraces its format, combining unabashed theatrics with some A-grade scumbag antics and moments of heart wrenching depression from Phil. Each scene takes things a step further than expected, whether that be into malarkey or melancholia, and is all the better for it.
Andy Karl’s performance as Phil is nothing short of superb. A true master of his craft, Karl (who originated the role eight years ago, and remains the only actor to ever play this version of Phil – save for some understudies) injects nuance into each ‘new’ day, leaving us somehow rooting for Phil, notwithstanding his abhorrent behaviour. His energy and pathos shows no signs of waning as he clocks an incredible amount of stage time. There’s abundant discourse surrounding the issue of flying in overseas actors for Aussie productions – why not give our local talent a chance to shine? In this case, we’re calling it: Karl gets a pass. (And the remainder of the cast, filled out entirely by local actors, firmly hold their own.)
Local legend Elise McCann keeps pace with the Broadway legend, playing sensible television producer and Phil’s love interest Rita Hanson, straight off the back of a season in Mamma Mia! The Musical at the same theatre. McCann’s rendition of the ‘not your princess’ anthem ‘One Day’ renders her Rita as a complex character who has more to give than being merely a target for Phil’s affections.
A strong ensemble cast ensures the supporting characters are doing more than just spurring Phil’s personal growth, with probing songs from insurance salesman Ned Ryerson (Tim Wright) and blonde bombshell Nancy (Ashleigh Rubenach), both highlights.
Perhaps the greatest wins for Groundhog Day are its ingenious use of repetition and its inventive stagecraft. Musicals rely on the concept of a reprise, but this is different. The power here comes not from simple reruns but from brilliant near-rhymes, key changes and genre-spanning reinterpretations of the small town theme.
The playful stagecraft keeps us guessing. There’s just so much going on, especially with copious silly props. Think pill bottles and snapping gloves used as additional percussion and selfie sticks placing the story firmly in the present day. The car chase scene is particularly creative and the illusions during the sardonically titled ‘Hope’ had the audience taking a few seconds to process what they’d seen before the gasps and roars set in.
Overall, Groundhog Day is a movie to musical adaptation gone so very right. The first act signs the deal, but it’s in the second that it’s truly sealed and delivered. Phil Connors comes across as such an asshole that redeeming him is a tough ask, yet the production pulls it off.
This brand of macabre humour is ripe for an Australian audience, as demonstrated by a swift and unanimous ovation. Is Groundhog Day moralistic? Sure. But its redemption arc clearly has audiences invested and we could probably all use a dose of hope (with a heavy hint of wit) right now. And as for why Andy Karl would want to live out his own personal time loop reprising this role? We get it.
Groundhog Day is playing at the Princess Theatre for a strictly limited 13-week season. This production is a Melbourne exclusive and won’t be travelling interstate. Tickets are on sale now and you can get yours here.